As the pastor of St. Patrick's I have to step back for a moment from the daily Lenten readings and reflect on St. Patrick's day. In order to understand it we have to go back to the decade before the founding of my parish. As one Catholic historian writes:
Suddenly, in the mid-1840s, the size and nature of Irish immigration changed drastically. The potato blight which destroyed the staple of the Irish diet produced famine. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were driven from their cottages and forced to emigrate -- most often to North America. Unlike the earlier migration, these people had no skills, no previous experience in adapting to a new country. They also had no money, few clothes, and very little hope. Most had no education. Further, despite a fierce loyalty to the Catholic Church, most had had little formal religious training.
It is hard for us today to imagine that even well known magazines like Harpers would regularly run horrible cartoons of "Bridget and Patrick" that would make Amos and Andy look racially sensitive.The term "Biddie" comes from Bridget. And I never heard anyone called "an old Biddie" as a compliment.
The Chicago Post wrote, "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses...Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country"
A century and a half later the whole country celebrates St. Patrick's Day. But how do we celebrate? When you say St. Patrick's Day do we think of the former slave who became a missionary? Do we think of the man who dedicated his life to spreading the faith?
For most Americans they think about getting drunk. Green beer, leprechauns, and pots of gold are the images. The shamrock is the only remnant of the actual saint left. Cities have to increase police patrols and erect sobriety check points all weekend.
I used to think that St. Nicholas was the most maligned saint. He may have been turned into a cartoon character with a sleigh and reindeer , but at least he is associated with something more than corned beef, cabbage, and getting drunk. How many DUI (DWI)'s will be racked up around St. Patrick's Day? How many will be injured or killed in an accident involving a drunk driver?
And the worst part of it all is that the people keeping the stereotype alive are the Irish-Americans themselves. The first generation of immigrants fought to establish themselves as something more than a band of brawling drunkards. Today some Irish Americans will act as if getting drunk is something to be proud of, and part of what it means to be Irish.
Blessed Pope John Paul II launched the New Evangelization, a call for us to reclaim the faith among all those who are baptized Catholics. It is time for us, Irish Catholics, and all those who belong to a St. Patrick's, St. Bridget's or any Irish Catholic Church to take back our Saint.
I'm not saying we should get rid of the parties, but can we rehabilitate the name, so that the first thing people think of us not just getting drunk? Perhaps it's time for us to look for ways: subtle and not so subtle to re-inject the faith those first immigrants suffered to defend back into the celebration, a day to be as proud of being Catholic as we are of being Irish.
Today as St. Patrick looks down from his place in heaven, will he be proud or ashamed of what his name represents?